Encouraging Curiosity in our Youth

“Rachael, can I ask you a question?” I looked up to see Michael standing there wearing a look somewhere between concerned and curious. All the other high school kids had left youth group for the evening and Michael was not usually one to stay behind.

“Of course, Michael. Of course, you can ask me a question,” I replied.

“Okay,” he said, taking a deep breath, “I need to ask you….okay…it’s just that..I’m wondering…” I held my breath, doing everything I could to keep a smile on my face; Michael’s nerves were contagious and were putting me on edge.

“It’s just that I need to know something. If Noah’s boat landed in like Afghanistan or something…how the heck did the penguins get to Antarctica?” I paused. It was one of those moments in youth ministry where you know you have to tread lightly. The answers to such questions, weirdly, mean a lot to a young person’s understanding of who they are, who God is, and our origins. These questions actually get to the core of our existence. On the surface, it seems like a silly question, but it’s not – Michael’s question is, actually, a rather serious one.

What Michael was really asking me was – does the Bible make sense? Is it really true? Is it fact? Because it’s hard to fit it into a modern understanding of the world.

Michael has been part of the church a long time. He has gone to Christian schools his entire schooling. He knows the Genesis story front to back. Michael was also raised in the Episcopal Church, a denomination that leans a little more progressive and is constantly living atop a three-tiered stool of reason, faith and tradition. His adolescent brain and earnest Christian heart were doing their best to bring it all together.

With college less than a year away, Michael told me that he knows he’s going to leave his comfortable bubble and enter into an unknown world. He will likely go to a large public university and he’s afraid that once he gets there, people will be all around him with different understandings of how the world works. In light of new information and new experiences, he worries he’ll leave his faith behind.

“So, I feel like now is my time to ask all these questions I thought were too stupid or silly to ask before. Because maybe they actually matter, ya know?” he asked.

If only all seventeen-year-olds were so articulate.

What not to do

It could be tempting to shrug Michael’s question off as silly. It could be tempting to try to give him all the answers. It could be tempting to insist Michael be careful when asking questions because it could lead down a slippery slope of doubt and loss of faith. It would have been simpler for me to say to Michael, “Michael, you don’t need to worry about these questions. God will take care of you! You just need to trust that God’s Word is true and hand it over in prayer.”

What we don’t want to do is create a Jenga Tower of Faith.

The problem with that response, is that Michael would have missed out on some much better lessons, and I would have missed out on an opportunity to pastor Michael through his questions. And, ultimately, this response is about as unhelpful as they come. This kind of response provides nothing for Michael’s spiritual development, and nothing for Michael’s struggle to reconcile faith with reason.

What we don’t want to do is create a Jenga Tower of Faith. If we encourage our youth to build their faith on a black and white understanding of scripture – one that fully depends on a literal Biblical worldview – then we are creating a lot of opportunity for instability in our youths’ faith foundation. Imagine one block of your youth’s faith tower is “don’t be curious,” and another is “evolution is false” and “the Big Bang theory is antithetical to a Biblical understanding of the world,” and so on and so on. Then imagine they learn compelling evidence which supports evolution – that block gets pulled out of the tower. Then imagine they hear compelling evidence for the Big Bang Theory – now that block has been pulled out. As more blocks get pulled out it’s easy to imagine the whole tower crumbling.

Asking the Big Questions

Michael has a point. Eventually, the youth we are walking with grow up, and go out into the world. If we’ve done our jobs, they know Jesus loves them; they know we love them; and they know a thing or two about following Christ. But did they have an opportunity to ask the big questions? Was your youth group a safe space for them to truly wonder aloud?

Andy Root in his new book about youth ministry and science, “Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs and Zombies,” articulates well the idea that science and faith, in many ways, are asking the same questions. We use science to understand the world around us, just as we do faith. Andy writes, “The overlap between faith and the scientific happens at this epistemic level. It was indeed the epistemic drive, born from their faith, that led Galileo…to passionately seek the shape of reality (p. 123).”

We use science to understand the world around us, just as we do faith.

Science asks big questions, and seeks out answers using a system of methods. Our middle and high schoolers sit in science class – whether it’s biology, chemistry or anatomy – and learn a lot about our universe and world. They are being given a lot of opportunities at school to ask big questions about our world, and are then given tools to answer those questions. I believe our faith communities should be doing the same thing – but how? Below are four suggestions on how to get the ball rolling.

1. Be curious

In his book Brainstorm, Dan Siegel writes that one of the marks of adolescence is curiosity. As adults, we tend to lose our sense of curiosity and settle into what we know (or what we think we know). In fact, healthy adults maintain their curiosity. While as youth ministers we should not be childish, I would insist that it is equally important to be child-like. Wonder at the world; wonder at scripture; wonder at God. Wonderment is a wonderful way to venture into curiosity. Wow those stars are amazing! What are they? How far away are they? Do you remember learning about stars in school? Do you remember learning they are millions of lightyears away? Do you remember learning that when we see the stars we are literally looking at the past? How amazing is that?

We know all these things because someone was curious enough to ask the question and scientifically found the answers. Your adolescents are curious about the world, the universe, God, existence – all of it. And so I would encourage you to be curious too. Meet them where they are at in their curiosity. Let yourself wonder and then create opportunities for you and your community of youth to wonder out loud together.

2. Talk don’t tell

It can be tempting as youth ministers to tell, not talk. What I mean is, we can fall into a pattern of trying to teach and directly influence kids, instead of walking alongside them in their adolescent journey. There’s of course nothing wrong with teaching our youth. Especially teaching them Biblical literacy, or about the traditions of our denomination, but we miss out on a different kind of learning when we spend all our time giving lesson after lesson.

For the youth community I lead, some of our most meaningful times together have been open discussions about the big questions. Recently, our high school group discussed creation. Instead of going straight to scripture, I asked them what they are taught about creation through science, and what they think scripture teaches us about creation. I had a senior in high school say she doesn’t think you can be a Christian and believe the Big Bang in the same conversation with a freshman who said she thinks you can believe the Big Bang Theory and still believe God is our creator. We started our discussion there, then I gave them time to read through Genesis 1:1-2:4a and Genesis 2:4b-25.

I prodded the conversation with more questions, but they also came up with more questions on their own, and I mostly got out of the way. We ended with a discussion on what to do with the two creation stories in Genesis. “Even if you don’t believe the stories about creation in Genesis are fact, what do these stories teach us about God? And what do they teach us about ourselves?” I asked them. I believe one of the greatest favors we can do for our youth, is to teach them how to ask questions. If you want to be a youth community that asks big questions, provide opportunities for discussion amongst your youth. Not only will everyone learn a lot, it’s a lot of fun.

3. Set some guidelines for discussion

If you’re going to encourage open discussion in your youth group, it’s helpful to have some guidelines. I did interfaith work at the University of North Florida for four years, and we used the same guidelines at each of our dialogue events. I find the following especially helpful in a youth ministry setting, but encourage your youth to come up with their own!

One mic, one diva: Maybe it’s just my youth (though I seriously doubt it), but listening to others is still something they’re learning and aren’t always good at. It’s helpful to remind them that whoever is speaking “has the mic” and they are the diva for that time. Everyone’s eyes should be on them. Using a talking stick or “mic” can actually be helpful if your group is into it. Some people also call this the “two ears, one mouth” guideline. Everyone has two ears and one mouth, so we can listen more and talk less.

Vegas Rule: Sometimes in these open discussions people are afraid of sounding dumb, or asking a dumb question, or sharing an unpopular opinion. Assure them that everything that is said in the room, stays in the room!

Disagree, don’t debate: Don’t be afraid of a little disagreement. We learn so much when there is disagreement. Just remind everyone that a little disagreement is great, but when it turns into a debate, it has stopped being productive. We’re here to share our ideas and questions as a community, not convince each other of our point of view.

I-statements: Using I-statements helps many people in the room from being defensive and it also helps encourage healthy disagreement. For example, say, “I disagree,” not, “you’re wrong.” Statements like “I believe,” “I think,” or “I wonder” can be more helpful than stating opinions or positions as facts.

These are just a few – ask your youth what they think would be helpful guidelines for discussion in your group!

4. Don’t be afraid of doubt

Sometimes I think we can be so afraid of the doubt in our kids that we shy away from any questions at all. We teach so much because we’re afraid of their conclusions. We might insist the Bible has a singular thing to say about creation, or about our origins, in order to avoid confusion. Here’s the truth – your youth can handle nuance! They can handle multiple truths! They can handle complicated ideas! Here’s the other truth – they still might doubt a little!

When we read about Peter walking on water, we tend to focus on his doubt rather than his curiosity. He was the only one in the boat who wanted to know if it was Jesus out there on the water bad enough to risk stepping out. Ultimately, his curiosity gave him the opportunity to walk on water (something that is scientifically impossible by the way!).  Then the waves got big and he thinks to himself “Oh no, I am walking on water in a storm!” and he begins to doubt, only then does he start to sink. But you know what is amazing about that? Jesus catches him! Peter’s doubt is not too big for Jesus. Allow your youth to know that even if all their questions spark a bit of doubt in them – Jesus is there the whole way (and so are you!).

Ultimately, help your kids embrace mystery. They’re not going to understand everything at once, and neither are you, and isn’t there beauty and joy in that? Part of our role as youth ministers is to create a community of youth who grow in Christ together, and to empower them so that when they leave youth group they have all the tools they need to follow Christ in the world. What better way to do that than to explore questions of science and faith together? To give them a safe space to doubt and question? Allow their curiosity to grow, to flourish – allow them to see that a wonderful way to be in relationship with God is to wonder at the expansive universe God created.

This article was made possible by Science for Youth Ministry in association with Luther Seminary and the John Templeton Foundation. Learn more at www.scienceym.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scienceforYM.


About the Author: Rachael McNeal

rachael mcneal

Rachael McNeal currently lives in St. Augustine, while working as the Director of Youth Ministries at Christ Episcopal Church in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL. She also has experience in Higher Education and Interfaith Activism. Rachael graduated from Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL where she studied Religion and Youth Ministry. She attended Princeton Theological Seminary where she received her Master of Divinity. She was featured on Interfaith Youth Core’s podcast Common Knowledge and has written for OnFaith, Interfaith Youth Core, Faith Line Protestants, Sojourners, and Huffington Post Religion.

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